Beulah Penry

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Changes in Marketing and Industry

Methods Cost Area Jobs


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National Stockyards Co. President Beulah Penry can look out her office window and see the trucks unloading hogs every morning, and she can raise her eyes and see the ruins of the Armour Packing Co. Plant - the old Swift & Co. plant where she worked as a secretary for 16 years has been torn down.

The stockyards supplied thousands of jobs from runners at the bank to those who wrapped hams and stuffed sausage in the packing plants. Then times changed - packers closed the plants at the yards: Swift, with about 4,000 employees, Armour, with 4,500, Hunter, with maybe 1,500, and hundreds more at Royal and Circle. The big packers built new plants, more efficient plants, elsewhere, and began buying their animals directly from the farmers, at 50 cents or a dollar a hundredweight less than current prices at the yards, or contracting for the animals even before they are conceived.

76-stockyardsview.tif (178522 bytes) Beulah Penry is president of the National Stockyards Co., with some 650 acres, and vice president of the Oklahoma City, Okla., stockyards. She flies back and forth between the two yards. There still is lots of activity here with 2,000 heads of hogs sold every day, and a few hundred head of slaughter cattle.

These "private treaty" sales still determine the market price that is paid by the packing plants when they buy on the farm. But the sales are dwindling every year about 12 per cent this past year. There is a feeder cattle every Thursday with 500 to 600 animals, and a feeder pig auction each Tuesday, with 600 to 1,000 pigs.

The marketing system has changed.

With it went ... how many jobs? The yards themselves 20 years ago employed 100, now employs 34 full-time. There were 12 commission houses, each with several employees; now there are six. The packing plants employed probably as high as 10,000! Now there are none. There were drovers handling sheep and goats as well as hogs and cattle. The farm supply stores still are there, but their business is not the same. Then the farmers hauled their cattle to market, supplies home. During World War I, the yards was the biggest mule market in the world. There were scores of satellite businesses, including the fascinating Chicago Curled Hair Corp. It bought, cleaned and curled hog hair to upholster furniture. There were hide companies, and companies that bought cripples and dead animals for dog food. North American Cold Storage was big business. There were several fertilizer firms employing hundreds of workers.

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In the heyday of the yards, cattle came by train, and with them real cowboys with manure on their boots. They sauntered down Collinsville Avenue on Saturday night, spending their money there, or back on Third Street. The tracks at the yards are gone, the unloading sheds rotting away.

Thirty years ago most husbands worked and most wives stayed home and kept house. The jobs in the yards easily supported 25,000 people! The jobs are gone because of a change in the way animals are marketed and slaughtered.

The yards story is illustrative - Aluminum Co. of America, 1,500 to 2,000 jobs lost; Alcoa Research Laboratories, 500 more, American Zinc Co., another 1,000 or so, Hill Brick, Obear Nester Glass Co., American Steel, Moss Tie, Walworth Valve, Socony Mobil, Phillips Pipeline, Continental Can, C. K Williams & Co., on and on. Smokestack industry jobs, lost to changing technologies, new ways of doing business. Alcoa tried to bring bauxite freighters from South America up the Mississippi River to East St. Louis (really, Alorton). When that didn't prove efficient, it moved its aluminum ore reduction plants to the mine sites, which made sense for Alcoa, disaster for East St. Louis.

At the same time, after World War II, trucks and planes displaced the railroads. East St. Louis had been the second largest rail center in the United States (Chicago was No. 1). But the cows and hogs came to the yards by truck over farm to market roads, then interstates. So did many other products. People went by plane. And the once thriving Front Street warehouses and loading docks turned into ghost buildings which, one by one, were torched. Jobs lost? One thousand, two, thousand, more? Who has an answer? I rode the shop train from the Relay Depot, now gone, down the street from the hotel on Missouri Avenue, now gone, to the Brooklyn backshops of the Terminal Railroad Assn. where several hundreds of us labored over steam locomotives. Now less than half that many repair diesels. The Alton & Southern Railroad closed its doors, and it was a major employer.

The number of jobs lost in the East St. Louis area was something above 25,000, maybe as high as 45,000. Obviously they were held not only by East St. Louisans, but also by residents of Belleville, Granite City, Fairmont City, Cahokia, Dupo, East Carondelet - many other towns. But the residents of these other towns have found, since then, new employment. The residents of East St. Louis, poor and black and many uneducated, have been less fortunate. For East St. Louis, the biggest industries provided jobs only; for tax purposes Alcoa, Monsanto and the stock yards were located in small incorporated communities bearing their names, and in the case of National City, literally owned by the company.

The union halls went silent as jobs went to the non-union sunbelt states, or evaporated completely to new technology.

The stockyards really is an anachronism.

Every slaughter animal sold there has to be hauled somewhere else to be killed and butchered. That it has survived so long is a tribute to stick-to-it-iveness, and perhaps the fact that farmers know somebody has to set prices or all producers will be at the mercy of just three big packers. Twenty five years ago I asked Gil Novotny, then National Stockyards Co. president, how many years the yards had left.

He said 10.

When the whites fled East St. Louis 20 years ago, the plants already were closing. The companies were "generously" giving their plants to the city; it saved the cost of tearing them down.

Penry is a native East St. Louis who now lives in Belleville. She has driven through East St. Louis to go to work for 42 years. As vice president and later president of the yards company, she oversaw the erection of a new stockyards company building after the disastrous fire Feb. 13, 1986, a new restaurant that is doing quite well, thank you, and is a great place for lunch, watched a new bank rise, and is controlling 650 acre of prime real estate in sight of the arch, 38 acres of it riverfront property. The present yards operation needs only a hundred acres. As president she does about the same thing she did as secretary to Novotny, including answering her own phone.

She belongs to the East Side Associated Industries and the Leadership Council, Southwestern Illinois.

Pemry has hope for the yards, for its survival, not revival. She has hope for East St. Louis and its riverfront development, for revival. While she's not much on pie in the sky, she believes East St. Louis is going to turn around.

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"There are a lot of first tier people working on this that are truly concerned," she said. This is what is going to turn it around, whether its riverfront development, new housing, new industry or whatever. These people, black and white, have no axe to grind other than see the area make a comeback, that's their only goal, nothing personal, nothing selfish, and that's what it takes. If anyone has a selfish motive, it's not going to fly."




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